It is always hard to cope with high expectations. In the last 15 years Fidelio has been conducted at Teatro Real by two of the best contemporary interpreters of this title: Daniel Barenboim and Claudio Abbado. Harmut Haenchen, after his extraordinary renditions of Shostakovitch's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Wagner's Lohengrin at Teatro Real, seemed a good choice to stand on the shoulders of these giants, but in the end he was unable to inspire an orchestra that seems to be undergoing an artistic crisis. Good singing could not compensate for the general feeling of gloom and routine that came to haunt the opening night.

Fidelio is probably one of the most genuinely beautiful scores in the repertoire. Beethoven brought Classicism to is peak and shook it with a revolutionary, albeit always noble, gust of Romantic humanism. He created an operatic symphony, whose musical continuum depicts the whole palette of feelings expressed in the libretto. Its black-and-white morals are almost reassuring and a spark of radical optimism finally makes its way through the score and the libretto, even if one cannot avoid sympathising with poor Marzelline, the unfair loser of the plot.

Sadly, none of these brilliant features inspired Pier' Alli, who blended minimalism and old-school staging to create a production that can be described, at best, as cost-effective. It premiered in Valencia almost a decade ago and has been revived now at Teatro Real to replace a frustrated project by La Fura dels Baus. Where it provides an effectively gruesome setting for Act I, its lack of imagination, a total absence of stage direction and questionable design hindered the unfolding drama. Singers acted instinctively, without any clear code, and the chorus' entrance in Act I, one of the most moving moments of the opera, was spoiled by clumsy gestures and static stage disposition. Visually, the scarcity of setting was compensated by 3D projections of dungeons and walls, but the rendering was so poor that they seemed issued from a good old Resident Evil video game.

Musically, the performance confirmed a worrying trend that has become evident lately: the orchestra seems unable to keep up the good level accomplished during the last five years. The sound is not as rich, the quality of the wind section has notably dropped and even the strings show a drier and poorer colour when compared to how it sounded just a year ago. Haenchen offered an unpolished and inelegant conception of Beethoven's style, with brisk transitions, poor control of dynamics and generally little attention to the infinite details of the score. The orchestral tutti sounded noisy and messy and even soloists failed to stand out. As an anecdote, Haenchen decided to add the third and fourth movements of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as an interlude after "O namenlose Freude!".

Fortunately, the singers came to the rescue. Adrianne Pieczonka, one of today's best lyric sopranos in the German repertoire, led a truly solid cast. Her voice has an impressive touch of metal that, combined with an electric vibrato, inflames her interpretation. The voice reveals a bit of weariness in the lighter parts, and the role, a dangerous mixture of Gluck's sopranos and Wagnerian blonde heroines, is just at the limit of her current possibilities, but she was able to depict a passionate, elegant and brave Leonore. Phrasing could have been more refined but it was overall a brilliant performance.

Michael König, unofficial Kammersänger of Teatro Real (he has featured in every season since 2010), convinced the audience with his rough timbre and his candid phrasing, even if his Florestan fall short of heroism and nobility. Alan Held's powerful top notes conveyed a truly authoritarian Don Pizarro and Franz-Josef Selig was a more than correct Rocco. But the big surprise of the night came with Anett Fritsch's fresh and luminous Marzelline. Her timbre is incredibly rich for a light-lyric soprano and sounds full and healthy in the middle notes. She sang with natural musicality and good German diction and was rewarded with a generous ovation. Ed Lyon was also very good as Jaquino, showing beautiful light timbre and polished singing. With a more inspired pit, this could have certainly been a good Fidelio.